A near-perfect spring so far — rainy and cold — has eased drought conditions considerably in eastern Nebraska and Iowa.
All of Nebraska remains in drought, but for the first time since July a slice of the state is a tantalizing step away from being free of it, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor published Thursday.
And the Lincoln area, which has suffered more than metro Omaha, has finally seen some improvement.
The map, a weekly publication of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, indicates that all or parts of seven far-southeast Nebraska counties are in the “least bad'' category: moderate drought.
The rest of the state is in severe to exceptional drought, but with improvements generally noted across eastern Nebraska.
“We're starting to see recovery,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. Deteriorating conditions through fall and winter are finally reversing, he said.
Nebraska, the epicenter of the drought, is one of the few states showing significant improvement this month. Another is Iowa, a reflection that the drought is easing nationally along its eastern boundary.
Eastern Iowa and states farther east have emerged completely from drought and many are battling flooding. About 48 percent of the contiguous United States remains in drought, down from about 65 percent at the peak last fall.
Only 36 percent of Iowa remains in drought, compared with 53 percent last week.
Most of Iowa's drought is the enviable, “least bad'' moderate category.
Al Dutcher, Nebraska's state climatologist, said the importance of April's unusually cold, wet weather cannot be understated. The cold has delayed a break from plant dormancy, which has allowed the heavy rains to seep deep into the soil rather than be consumed by growing vegetation.
“These were almost perfect conditions during April for us to see improvement,” Dutcher said. “It took near-double precipitation in a lot of locations, coupled with one of the coldest Aprils in the last 119 years, for us to get to this point.”
In southeast Nebraska, the soil is saturated 4 feet down and cannot hold any more moisture, according to Dutcher.
This will allow crops to get off to a healthy start. Similar soil moisture conditions now exist across most of Iowa, according to the map.
The Omaha area remains in severe drought, while Lincoln has finally improved to that level. Since late last summer, Lincoln had been mired in the worst category of extreme drought.
For both the Lincoln and Omaha areas, adequate moisture extends about 2 feet down into the soil, Dutcher said, But more rain is needed to saturate the full 4-foot soil profile.
Fuchs said eastern Nebraska has improved ahead of the rest of the state because it has received more precipitation and was not as parched to start with.
Both Dutcher and Fuchs said conditions could change quickly in Nebraska if rains don't continue when plants break dormancy.
“The state is still very vulnerable,” Fuchs said.
“This is a good start, but we need to continue to see steady, periodic rains to see further improvement.”
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More drought maps: droughtmonitor.unl.edu